When I set out to photograph images of older women to post on this blog, I never dreamed I’d meet with so much resistance. Two thirds of the women I asked to photograph turned me down. Sometimes it was a flat “No” uttered in motion as the woman hurried along. Other times I’ve received comments like: “I’m too old. Me? At my age! Only if you don’t show my wrinkles.”
According to London’s Centre for Appearance Research, “old talk” is a major contributor to the negative body image experienced by older women.
Old talk is axiomatic for us. Since our teen years we’ve been bombarded with images of youthful, thin women as the standard bearers for beauty. We received the message that once old, women were no longer attractive unless they went under the knife to erase their old faces.
To take on our crazy beauty culture, we have to develop a new narrative for aging, one that champions the lined, character-rich faces of women like Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, or the Native American leader, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard.
I asked several women I know who seem comfortable in their aging bodies, what their secrets are. A sister-in-law told me she refuses to be weighed at the doctor’s office. She maintains a healthy body without daily check-ins with a bathroom scale.
Another friend who is content with her plump shape confessed that the only time she is uncomfortable with her body is when she hears the voice of her deceased mother telling her to lose weight. This friend playfully comments, “When this happens I imagine my mother with duct tape over her mouth.”
I’ve talked to women who describe feeling liberated when they go gray. Many European women continue to wear bikinis well into their dotage, appearing unfazed by their flabby shapes.
Jill Soloway, the writer and director of the TV series, “Transparent,” has ditched her heels, feminine wardrobe and make-up for gender-neutral clothes and lip-gloss. Soloway insists that being freed up from investing in her outward appearance has provided her with more energy for her creative projects.
Some women look in the mirror and instead of shrieking adopt a practice of positive self-talk, reframing wrinkles and sagging jowl lines as evidence of their wisdom years.
This is reminiscent of the Crone, the old woman described in goddess literature. Crones were celebrated for the knowledge represented by their wrinkles. During this time young women actually looked forward to becoming crones!
Kim Chernin, author of the best-selling 1981 book, Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, suggests that our culture glorifies thinness because a large woman takes up a lot of space and carries a lot more authority than a woman whose shape is whittled down. (Consider the opera singer Joan Sutherland). Perhaps the same thinking can be applied to a common representation of the old woman as a witch or a meddling old fool. Does our aging narrative deny the older woman’s wisdom? Where are the American elder stateswomen to complement the elder statesmen?
Many of us, assuming #45 doesn’t blow us up, can expect to live well into our ‘90’s. If you’re like me, you don’t want your advancing years to be accompanied by body-image anxiety. According to feminist psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach all women, especially older women, have to resist the prevailing beauty narrative which tells us to be feminine means to hate your body.
We are the new older women. We have a responsibility to model an old age that is free from the existing cultural norm that demeans and limits us. Let’s break this chain for younger women.
I have a new practice where I routinely compliment the elderly women in my church. It’s heart-warming to watch their faces light up in response. Maybe you’ll join me by complimenting the elderly women you know.
In our social circles let’s bombard one another with affirmations for our faces and bodies that brim with wisdom and the contours of lives well lived!